Protecting paradise in stunning Maldives

Baros beach. Picture: PA Photo/Hannah Stephenson.

Baros beach. Picture: PA Photo/Hannah Stephenson.

LISTED: Roadworks planned across the south this week

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Breaking off the beautiful, fragile coral, his flippers creating a cloud of debris, which muddies the water, Arnie doesn’t even look up at the divers observing his wanton destruction of the reef that everyone else is trying to save.

We have just been given a lesson in the dive school on the importance of not touching the coral which provides a vital framework to the eco-balance of this part of the Indian Ocean, yet Arnie gives us a perfect display of how not to treat this stunning underwater environment.

But then Arnie is a hawksbill turtle, the largest of a group of around eight to make their home on the 300m-long house reef at Baros, a tiny , beautiful island in the Maldives, with five-star facilities and diving to die for. Arnie was simply foraging for food.

It’s 40 years since Baros was created, firstly as a hang-out for divers, and later transformed into the high-end luxury paradise it is now, with authentically-styled Maldivian bungalows featuring all mod cons.

The resort also benefits from its own separate sandbank island, on which you can enjoy a sunrise breakfast, and its own dhoni (a traditional Maldivian boat), on which you can sip Champagne and watch the sun set.

As the third oldest resort in the Maldives, Baros has seen much competition spring up in the last four decades. There are now a reported 102 resort islands in this heavenly hotspot south of India and west of Sri Lanka.

This might seem a drop in the ocean for a territory comprising around 1,190 coral islands forming 26 atolls, but how much damage is tourism doing?

Before guilt sets in, we need to look at the bigger picture. Global warming produces the biggest threat to coral reefs and the Maldives as rising sea levels threaten to engulf the islands.

Yet tourism has also helped to preserve much of the marine life which once went unprotected.

Dutchman Ronny Van Dorp, owner of the Baros dive centre, says that in the 17 years he has been there, he has seen shark numbers dip – fishermen would hunt them for shark fin soup, a delicacy in China – and rise again, following a ban on shark hunting.

Now we see harmless blacktip reef sharks and nurse sharks in the shallows, as well as on the reef.

There’s also a ban on the catching of turtles and the sale or export of turtle-shell products, although strangely no ban on the lifting of turtle eggs, which apparently some of the locals like to eat.

He says that the increase in tourism hasn’t made the reefs busier, because as numbers have risen, so have the number of resort islands – and divers have spread out across a wider area.

Diving into those crystal clear waters I witness an aquarium on the house reef, as bi-coloured parrotfish mingle with emperor angelfish and stripy Oriental sweetlips share space with jutting-jawed spotted wrasse.

Making tourists more eco-aware is all about education, says Ronny. Set up in 1979 as one of the first dive centres in the Maldives, Baros was also the first in the Maldives to practise the international Reef Check Programme, educating the public, monitoring reef health and working on solutions to protect healthy reefs and rehabilitate damaged ones.

Hannah Stephenson travelled to Male courtesy of Sovereign Luxury Travel. A week at the five-star Baros Maldives costs from £1,599 per person – saving up to £662 – booked through Sovereign Luxury Travel (0843 770 4526, sovereign.com). The price includes a free night, return flights from London Gatwick with Emirates, airport lounge access, private transfers and seven nights B&B in a Deluxe Villa, based on two adults sharing. Prices based on departures May 2, 2014. For further information on Baros, please visit Baros.com.

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